02. 23. 2006. 15:45

The artists of taxidermy

György Pálfi: Taxidermia

In the category of feature films at the 37th Hungarian Film Festival, the screening of György Pálfi’s new film Taxidermia was preceded by much expectation. The movie is based on the short stories and writings of Lajos Parti Nagy. The screenplay was written by the director and Zsófia Ruttkay.

Parts of the film had already been shown at last year’s Sziget Festival, where one of the main actors, Gergely Trócsányi, and director György Pálfi met the audience. Those present could watch scenes from the movie depicting the lives of three generations from the perspective of third-generation taxidermist Balatony. The excerpts showing the ‘heyday’ of the champion speed-eating father were taken from the middle of the film. His story takes us to the golden age of socialism, while the story of the grandfather Vendel goes back to the period around World War II, to a tiny hidden village where he spends his days as an officer’s servant, hardly knowing any source of pleasure other than the lonesome satisfaction of his bodily desires. On one occasion, his overheated sexual imagination melds the captain’s fat wife and the pig slaughtered that day. As a result, Vendel gets a bullet in the head from the captain the next day, and the captain’s wife eventually bears him a pig-tailed child. This will be Kálmán Balatony, the speed-eating artist-to-be. He is also the father of the narrator Lajos, the youngest Balatony, who finds satisfaction in self-taxidermy.

According to the literary synopsis, it is Lajos the taxidermist who recounts the story of the three generations. (In Taxidermia, the classical family story is removed from its usual framework by the son’s value system, his extremely powerful subjectivity and his unusual insight, which help the reader navigate the plot’s numerous miracles, Pálfi explains.) In the film, however, Balatony is not the obvious narrator; the story is much more likely the narrative of one of his recent clients whom we see talking in an exhibition space in the closing scene of the movie. The stuffed father and the self-mounted son are parts of the exhibition space, and the client repeats the sentences attributed to the son in the literary synopsis with his own words. (The literary synopsis says, “I have made myself. I have become successful and respectable. An artist of taxidermy. I could live happily. But... The opus magnum! The masterpiece! I was, after all, wrong in not realising that there were things one could not stuff into any preparation. The limits of the genre – nothing can be done about that. Because there’s no use stuffing your father, and your grandfather, and the whole family, as your imagination would have it... And this experiment, too, it’s OK, and it’s something no one ever has... but when you get to think about it as a whole, think about what you feel – you can’t really stuff that. But this is a part of me, too.”)

The film is a brilliant alloy of the three stories, handling scene changes with the well-timed harmonisation of several events. Pre-eminent among the visual representations of Vendel’s “fuck-fits” is the scene connecting the cold with Andersen’s story of the little match girl. Hallucinating in the cold, Vendel – or the grandson visualising his grandfather – moves in his imagination into a picture book where he seduces the freezing little girl. In his moment of satisfaction, he hands over the stars he promised her with the image exploding out of the book’s fairy scene, flinging the storybook picture to the heavens in a moment of temporal pleasure. In another similarly beautiful harmonisation of events, a cock bites Vendel’s penis, which sticks out from the shed as he masturbates while watching the captain’s daughters at play. His scream of pain and the captain’s wife calling the children back into the house are heard simultaneously. The depiction of the various functions of the trough that plays multiple roles in the life of the family is also beautifully done. It is as if we were travelling spatially, walking through walls from one room to the next; while in fact, the camera is wandering in time. In the trough we find bathing girls, then the bread kneaded by their mother, then the processed pork, a dead family member or a newly born child.

The transition to the second period of the film – the story of the father and the grandfather – is another beautiful element. The camera turns from the child to the captain lifting the child, scanning his figure in a 360 degree turn from the ground to the top of his head, and then it moves on. Turning toward the sky, the lens focuses on three airplanes, drawing behind them lines of red, white and green. Finally, returning to the ground, we find ourselves at the Olympic speed-eating qualifications where the grown-up Balatony is proving his competitive and womanising talents, all the while eating goulash.

Richest in picturesque and detailed scenes is perhaps the story of the grandfather; the depiction of the story of later generations is more realistic. It is as if the producers were trying to compensate for the plot’s shortcomings in credibility with a realistic language of imagery. (For example, the officer’s servant seeing his superior’s daughters in his bed in his fantasies is far more realistic than the several-hundred-kilogram eating champion being devoured by his own cats, trained for eating competitions, or his son dissecting himself alive with a machine he designed.) The technical devices of the movie pay due respect to a number of predecessors. To mention but two obvious examples, the long and uncut scenes call to mind Béla Tarr’s Satan’s Tango, while the circular movements of the camera scanning the sky remind us of Guy Ritchie movies – but as a whole, they recall the meticulous world of Pálfi we first encountered in Hukkle. The writings of Lajos Parti Nagy – even if not shown in their own light, but in the interpretation of Pálfi, Ruttkay and Pohárnok – served as worthy material for the creation of an artistic product at least as unique as the literary pieces themselves.

Gabriella Györe

An excerpt from the literary synopsis

"The whole thing was something similar to the way I now created myself. Us Balatonys – more precisely, Morosgoványis, if that’s what my grandfather was really called – or shall we stick to Medgyasszay? Makes no difference. This is what we are like: self-creating.
My grandfather was officer’s servant at the captain’s house during World War II. In some village. But more of a bat-horse man. Often he slept standing, like horses. He had nowhere to sleep. In the terrible cold he would heat up the unheatable attic landing with his passionate fantasies and fuck fits that keep one warm, even if only for a few seconds – and even if later the drops of sperm freeze to one’s skin like drops of lead.

He had a trough he could sleep in, but that trough was also the most multifunctional object within the family. That was where they had a bath every two weeks, and that was where they kept the leftovers of the freshly slaughtered pigs.

It was on one such occasion that he got into great trouble, when grandfather’s trough was filled with pork. It was a cold winter day, and it so happened that the captain’s wife paid my grandfather a visit on the night of the slaughter. The morning after their passionate lovemaking, the captain entered the pantry, found my grandfather half naked in the meat, and shot him in the face without hesitation."

Excerpts from the director’s concept

"Lajos first tells the story of his grandfather Vendel, the clumsy tailor who had become servant to an obsessive captain. In the years of World War II, what else could he desire but to love and be loved. Since this is impossible, he fights against physical and mental frost using the heat of his passionate imagination, combining the figure of Iluska from Kacsóh’s János vitéz with Andersen’s little match girl and the captain’s big wife.

Lajos also talks about his father Kálmán, the illegitimate son of a sow, but a true child of communism – a  sportsman competing in the most glorious of socialist sports, eating. He and his lover Gizi are fighting together for a better future – or, as the case may be, for the trip to Sotchi. He is able to achieve what his father could only dream of and finds true love, but he cannot achieve his own goal. His solidarity to the Soviet Union prevents him from participating in the Olympic games in Los Angeles.

Finally, Lajos talks about himself: the grey and reliable craftsman who claims to be not a mere taxidermist, but a sculptor of organic matter. He decides to tempt God, and his only goal is to fulfil himself by creating the perfect work of art, thereby becoming immortal."

Taxidermia. Directed by György Pálfi. Director of photography: Gergely Pohárnok. Screenplay: based on the short stories of Lajos Parti Nagy, by Zsófia Ruttkay and György Pálfi. Music: Amon Tobin.

The film’s website

Tags: György Pálfi: Taxidermia